TEXAS VIEW: Only those willing or able pay

By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

If Fort Worth cannot equitably enforce its red-light camera ticketing policy, should the city retain it?

That’s the question we found ourselves asking after Anna Tinsley’s report that in Cowtown last year, more than half of the red-light camera tickets issued were sent to collections because they were unpaid.

Even so, the city raked in a tidy $2.44 million in 2016 — money it uses for road markings and signal maintenance.

But with close to 125,000 violations unpaid — and without an adequate means of enforcing the fines, save a $25 late fee — is it really fair for Fort Worth to continue accepting payments from only those willing or able to make them?

We’re not so sure.

If Fort Worth wants to keep its policy — and there are mixed safety arguments for doing so — it needs to come up with a better way of ensuring more tickets are paid.

Some Texas counties block the vehicle registrations of car owners until unpaid red-light tickets are resolved.

Tarrant County does not.

Former Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright had stated that he will not block registrations for outstanding red-light tickets since the penalties are civil and not criminal.

That helps explain the 531,960 tickets sent to collection agencies between 2012 and 2016. (At $75 a piece — about half of which goes to the state — that’s a lot of lost revenue.)

Wright recently resigned and is now running for Congress, so the red-light ticket policy could change when Tarrant County elects a new tax assessor.

But even if it doesn’t change, Fort Worth could do more to crack down on scofflaws.

The city could, for example, treat unpaid red-light camera tickets like parking violations and boot cars over outstanding debts.

That would probably persuade more people to pay tickets, and it would give current city policy more teeth.

Or it could provide red-light camera opponents with the support they need to get a red-light camera referendum on next year’s ballot.

A successful campaign against Arlington’s red-light cameras led to a vote of 59 to 41 percent to ban them from the city in 2015.

Activists who led the Arlington effort are now trying to persuade the Fort Worth City Council to let the voters decide the fate of the cameras in November 2018.

Opponents argue that since red-light cameras can’t prove who was driving the vehicle, ticketing the owner violates the Constitution. And they question the safety benefits of the cameras.

The research on safety is mixed. Some studies suggest a modest decrease in crashes. Others find that changing traffic signal timing at intersections, as some municipalities do to trap more violators, can increase accidents.

There are concerns, too, that cities are more motivated by revenue than safety. Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke says the cameras are not designed to be a money-maker.

But increasing transparency around the city’s red-light camera use, its motivations and related safety record should be part of any discussion about the future of the red-light camera policy in Fort Worth.

While we support the right of voters to make decisions about red-light cameras in their localities, we also believe that if the city has a compelling safety argument to keep the cameras, it should make it.

And if Fort Worth is going to maintain its use of red-light cameras, it absolutely needs to find a way to more evenly enforce ticket payment collection. Otherwise, voters would be justified if they elect to have the cameras removed.